In my last year of college, we heard a rumor that our school was going to land ex-president Richard Nixon as our commencement speaker. This would have been quite a coup as it would come just a year after the Nixon-Frost interviews and would have been Nixon’s first public speaking engagement since his resignation. But activist students on campus protested the architect of Watergate speaking at their alma matter, and the university was forced to withdraw the invitation. My graduating class ended up with TV actor Harold Gould as our commencement speaker. Gould, an alumnus of our school who was best known as the dad on “Rhoda,” gave a nice commencement address. But he wasn’t Richard Nixon.
The students who stopped us from hearing Nixon speak were well-intentioned idiots. Sure, Nixon did bad things in office. But he was a human being and tragic figure who deserved better than to be ostracized by a bunch of snooty college kids. It was our loss, not his. We let our hate cloud our judgment.
I feel the same way today when I read what’s being said about Hillary Clinton by people in her own party. It’s one thing to hear conservative Republicans tear her down. But when you hear Bernie Sanders supporters calling her everything from “a corrupt corporate shill” to a rape-enabling, war-mongering, Wall Street loving, America hating “evil bitch” who has “killed more people than Charlie Manson” and “lies as easily as she breathes,” you wonder what she has ever done to deserve such universal contempt.
As best I can tell, Hillary has never done anything to warrant such animosity. A respected first lady who fought for universal healthcare, she became a target of ridicule during her husband’s administration because of a smattering of minor kerfuffles like Travelgate and Whitewater, her corporate legal work, and the mysterious suicide of her close friend, Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster – all of which were blown way out of proportion by Clinton’s political opponents and conservative talk radio. Then, when her husband was caught in the very real Monica Lewinsky cheating scandal, she was vilified simply because she naively stood by her man.
I always assumed Hillary truly believed her husband was being railroaded by Monica and her conservative enablers up to the point that Bill confessed to the nation. Maybe she learned the truth the night before. But her claims of a “vast rightwing conspiracy” to sink his presidency weren’t that far off, even if she was the last to know that the conspiracy started under her husband’s desk.
In 2000, we all thought she was a carpetbagger when she chose to run for an open senate seat in New York. But she won the campaign on her own and proved to be a diligent, serious senator. “A workhorse, not a show horse,” Sen. John McCain admiringly called her. Her vote for the Iraq War Resolution disappointed a lot of liberals. But she was in good company with John Kerry, Joe Biden, Evan Bayh, Tom Harkin, Chris Dodd, Diane Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and twenty other Democratic senators.
In 2008 she emerged as the early front runner for the Democratic nomination, but soon fell victim to her husband’s rusty political instincts and the inspiring political oratory of Barack Obama. After being passed over for the VP slot on Obama’s ticket, she could have skulked off into history like Teddy Kennedy in 1980, pocketing her 18 million primary votes and going home to wait for 2012. But instead she proved a loyal Democrat, campaigning tirelessly for the ticket and then accepting Obama’s offer to be his Secretary of State. Then she served with loyalty and distinction for four years, earning acclaim from Democrats and Republicans alike. She’s been named Gallup’s Most Admired Woman in the World an astounding 17 times through 2014.
So how did she go from there to here in one year. Well, her tenure at State presided over a lot of high-profile hits and misses, from killing Bin Laden to the anarchy of Libya following the “lead from behind” effort to oust Gaddafi. Her email scandal was a PR disaster of her own doing. And the Benghazi hearings morphed her public image from that of an embattled cabinet secretary caught up in a tragedy of war into the Machiavellian architect of the Obama administration’s entire foreign policy, a scheming liar and coverup artist and, in some quarters, somehow complicit in the deaths herself. Forget that all the charges were baseless and ridiculous. The right wing media, which so long had silently fumed at being outed for their vast conspiracy against her husband, finally got its revenge by tar and feathering her for an unforeseeable terrorist attack five thousand miles away.
Why now, having served her president and nation diligently for eight years as First Lady, eight years as a senator, and four years as its chief diplomat, is her character and reputation being dismembered by members of the very party she so loyally served? Why is any politician so vilified?
Sure, Democrats mourned the night Ronald Reagan rode a conservative wave to the White House and we resented his cowboy swagger. But when he was shot five months later, we never wished him ill. In fact, I admired how he joked with doctors in the operating room, and how he handled touchy international crises like the downing of a Korean airliner with Americans aboard, the Libya Marines barracks bombing, and the Challenger explosion. I didn’t particularly like the Reagan presidency, but I didn’t hate the man.
Similarly, I found things to like and even admire about George H.W. Bush and later his son, even though I was opposed to most of what they stood for. Even Nixon, whom my parents alternately called “Tricky Dick” or “that bastard,” was never scorned in our family the way Barack Obama and Hillary are by their political opponents. It’s a new era of hatred. They are considered enemies of the country they lead, with a level of loathing only slightly less than Jihadi John. Even Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad get more grudging respect.
And now that’s even true in the political party Hillary has valiantly represented for decades. Supporters of Bernie Sanders are especially disparaging of Clinton, whom they vilify as a corrupt autocrat, hawkish neocon, and pathological liar. They point to her tenure on the board of Wal-mart as proof of her overt hostility toward the working class, and slut shame her for her so-called “ties to Wall Street” and the private prison industry. (Usually mentioned with the same disdain used by Sen. Joseph McCarthy to tie people to the Communist party.) You could watch FOX News 24/7 for weeks and not hear the same slander of her that you read in the typical Facebook debate group in one day. From Democrats. Many of whom agree with her on 80% or more of the political issues important to their party.
Is Clinton a perfect presidential candidate? No. Has she accepted too many high paying speaking engagements from Wall Street firms? Probably. Could she have been more consistent and outspoken on issues of importance to the progressive wing of her party? Sure. But she has also shown a fierce political spine by standing up the the NRA and she holds most of the progressive positions that form the foundation of contemporary liberalism.
Should Hillary Clinton walk to the nomination in a uncontested coronation? Obviously not. But while she is being run through the primary gauntlet and tested on her ability to win, she need not be vilified as a corrupt political monster unworthy of human respect. Leave the scarlet letters of history for Slobodan Milosevic, Ferdinand Marcos, Spiro Agnew, Duke Cunningham, Rod Blagojevich and others who were actually convicted of crimes and abuses of power. Hillary Clinton is no saint. But her biggest sin may end up being that she wins the nomination and general election despite the cynical image bashing of her enemies outside her party and in.
Then she’ll be a hated President of the United States. And the nation has had enough of those over the past sixteen years.